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Wi-Fi offloading – a congested cellular network solution

With many local cellular networks straining under increasing data usage, the time is perfect for the country’s mobile operators to adopt aggressive Wi-Fi offloading as a strategy, says QUENTIN JOUBERT, product manager at Cellfind.

Wi-Fi offloading could help operators to tap new revenue streams from Wi-Fi while providing cheaper, more convenient data access with a better experience for users in congested urban areas.

Network congestion in urban centres has emerged as major challenge for South African mobile operators as more users with smartphones, data cards and tablets join their networks. Data usage is climbing, but the capacity to service this demand is limited. And with operators refarming their existing capacity to provide Long Term Evolution (LTE) services, the problem is growing by the day. We are already seeing some operators use premium pricing for LTE services as a way to try and control the demand for high-speed data is putting on their networks.

Wi-Fi offloading allows for data traffic on a smartphone to be shifted onto a public Wi-Fi network or a Wi-Fi networking owned by the cellular operator when one is available to take pressure off the congested cellular network. Most mid-range to high-end smartphones today support Wi-Fi as well as cellular technologies such as 3G and LTE, he notes.

Today’s technology allows the hand-off between cellular and Wi-Fi networks to be done relatively seamlessly to the end-user with seamless authentication across multiple networks, so that a subscriber doesn’t necessarily need to fiddle around with configuration settings and multiple passwords. In the back-office, the billing can be easily built into operator’s existing systems.

From the operator’s perspective, the advantage is two-fold: it can alleviate congestion on its cellular network and benefit from Wi-Fi revenues when subscribers are using hotspots rather than the cellular networks.

Savvy users know that Wi-Fi services are often cheaper and faster than the cellular network and switch as soon as a public hotspot is available. Operators can capture those revenues rather than letting them leak to a competitor.

In addition to partnering with existing Wi-Fi hotspot operators to offer Wi-Fi offloading services, operators could also build out their own Wi-Fi networks in busy urban areas like airports and shopping centres. The benefit of this is that Wi-Fi exists in unlicensed bands of spectrum, allowing operators to offer more data capacity in the most pressured areas while they wait for Icasa to finalise the spectrum allocations they need for more aggressive deployment of LTE.

For the operator, there is extra value to be unlocked by combining Wi-Fi with location-based services (LBS). LBS can be used to promote a range of personalised information and services to subscribers making use of Wi-Fi offload.

For example, LBS could be used to locate an executive in an airport lounge and push relevant information to him as he awaits his flight. Depending on his personal preferences and privacy profile, this could range from specials on meals to discounts in airport shops to alerts relevant to his journey. Indoor mapping and turn-by-turn walking directions could even be used to steer him to his departure gate or a restaurant with a lunchtime special.

We have a long wait ahead of us before South Africa’s spectrum allocation issues are straightened out and LTE becomes commonplace. In the meantime, however, Wi-Fi offloading offers mobile operators a great way to capture more data revenues in a way that also provides customers with a great user experience. It is a strategy that few operators can afford to ignore.


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